Better Elementary Leaders Called For

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As many as 70 percent of today's elementary-school principals are expected to retire in the next 5 to 10 years, experts told Secretary of Education William J. Bennett's Study Group on Elementary Education last week.

That phenomenon, they argued, will afford the education community an "enormous opportunity" to reform the way new principals are trained, selected, and employed.

The panel and its guest speakers also discussed the role of schooling in the formation of character.

The 21-member group, named in October, is charged with advising Secretary Bennett, who will draft a report on the subject this spring. Last week's meeting was the third of four planned. The panel will meet again in April, at which time members will review a draft outline of the Secretary's report.

’Enormous Opportunity'

"Principals are key to beginning and sustaining effective school improvement," said Kent D. Peterson, director of the Principals' Institute at Vanderbilt University. "Cognitively, it's a much more complex role than we once thought."

The "enormous challenge" of the elementary-school principalship, he said, is one that many current principals are ill-prepared for because of poor college preparation and certification programs, flawed selection processes, and poor supervision of principals by superiors.

Because principals are in a position to directly influence the course of school reform, it is imperative that their role be examined, Mr. Peterson asserted.

Recruitment Procedures

Bruce Cooper, associate professor of administration, policy, and urban education at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Education, offered several recommendations for dealing with the problem of inadequately trained school leaders:

  • Reform recruitment procedures. Current recruitment patterns, he said, are restrictive, limited by state regulation and districts' policies, and result in the selection of principals who do not take risks. "Somehow," he said, "the recruitment process has to be opened up."
  • Improve training and preparation programs. More than 1,400 institutions currently offer principal-preparation programs, according to Mr. Cooper, but such pro· grams are without focus, driven by state certification requirements, and often disjointed and unclear. ''The standards are extremely low," he noted. "We admit almost anybody ... and we leave it up to the school district to screen them."
  • Study the "socialization" of the principal. In order to determine how principals do their jobs, Mr. Cooper suggested, it is necessary to learn what happens in the school to influence the principal.
In most cases, he noted, "the principal is turned loose," has no networks, and has little sense of working with other educators as part of an identifiable group. Superintendents and school boards, Mr. Cooper said, could do a lot more to bring people together to work on problems and issues at the school level.

Content and Character

Turning to the issue of values and the curriculum, the study group heard testimony from Herbert Walberg, research professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Noting that "academic excellence promotes values" and that "content and character are mutually reinforcing," Mr. Walberg suggested that students can learn about values from such subjects as history and English.

And Roger Hogan, chairman of the psychology department at the University of Tulsa, noted that teachers can assist in the development of students' "internalized philosophical system" by exposing them to moral themes in great literature.

Secretary Bennett raised the question of whether students should be exposed to values through courses that are geared specifically to the discussion of ethical issues.

Yes, answered Donald Thomas, deputy superintendent of the South Carolina Department of Education and a member of the study group. "Having ethics taught by chance is not sufficient," he argued. "You have to make a deliberate effort to teach it."

And although he agreed that such teaching does not have to be a part of the traditional curriculum, Mr. Thomas stressed the need to "make a concerted effort" to instill ethical behavior among teachers and principals, as well as in the classroom.

Lois Coit, a journalist from Palo Alto, Calif., and a panel member, noted that teachers need guidance on the issue. There is no consensus, she suggested, about how to deal in the classroom with ethical issues that are more controversial than enforcing the basic value of honesty.

'Realignment of Roles'

Ms. Coit also suggested that the Secretary's report address the issue of "the realignment of the roles" of families and schools in the teaching of values. On the one hand, she said, teachers say they have to discipline students more and teach them about values. On the other hand, she said, parents complain that they have to teach reading and writing at home because the schools are failing to do so.

”I’m concerned about this confusion of roles," Ms. Coit said. "You can make schools do some things, but it's very hard to make parents do anything." With the increased pressures on the family today, she noted, the role of that institution in children's lives is diminishing.

Vol. 05, Issue 23, Page 7

Published in Print: February 19, 1991, as Better Elementary Leaders Called For
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